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Janesville surgeon's trip to help hurt soldiers reinforces war’s reality

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GINA R. HEINE
July 9, 2011
— Janesville orthopedic surgeon Dan Sellman’s recent two-week military service at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., provided him a new perspective on war and the stress his medical colleagues are under.

American soldiers with traumatic and multiple amputations filled the rooms. Injured by blasts that blew off their limbs in Afghanistan, the soldiers arrived for definitive care at the hospital five to 10 days after their injuries.


Sellman saw several patients with three limbs blown off, exposed bones and ripped and shredded muscles.


It was “an overwhelming experience in terms of the massive extent of the injures that these kids have sustained,” he said, “and I was exposed to new techniques that are being used in my field to manage massive soft-tissue injuries.”


The experience was the first in what Sellman expects to be several more trips to Bethesda to care for injured soldiers. Sellman, 48, joined the Navy Reserves about five months ago and committed to a three-year stint.


In that time he will work about five weeks a year, and he hopes to do most of it in Bethesda or at a similar setting.


Sellman also served four years in the Air Force starting in 1994.


“I just felt like much of our society, myself included, found it too easy to forget about what the soldiers were going through,” he said. “It was worthwhile to try to help out.”


Sellman worked at Mercy Hospital and Trauma Center in Janesville for nine years and now works eight to 10 days a month at a hospital in Memphis, Tenn. He usually tends to trauma patients involved in car accidents.


“This is definitely a totally different brand of trauma,” he said of the soldiers’ injuries. “The severity of these blasts is really horrendous.”


Sellman said going to Bethesda was a worthwhile experience not only because he cared for badly injured patients, but also to provide support and assistance to physicians who have been treating the massive traumas for years.


“They’re struggling with burnout and fatigue,” he said.


Through the high-volume workload, long hours and emotional stress, Sellman could “see a lot of the surgeons are at the end of their ropes a little bit.”


The medical center is the designated hospital for Navy and Marine casualties returning to the continental United States from Iraq and Afghanistan.


During Sellman’s two-week stay, 12 new patients were flown in. All had multiple limb amputations. About 25 to 30 patients were in the care of orthopedic service while he was there.


Soldiers injured in Afghanistan are first stabilized and then sent to a U.S. Air Force base in Germany to undergo surgery to clean and care for their wounds. Then they’re moved to Bethesda for more definitive care, he said.


Sellman was told each injured soldier goes through an average of eight surgeries before all their wounds are closed.


Major advancements in the orthopedic field tend to come out of war experience, he said, and the military has perfected, out of necessity, dealing with soft-tissue injuries in the last 10 years.


The military uses a vacuum-assisted wound closure system, something Sellman said he’s had minimal exposure to in civilian practice.


“Out there, it’s used on everything,” he said.


While surgeries took place every day, about four days a week were “major operating days” when seven operating rooms would run all day.


“Rooms were just filled one after another with one and two amputations,” he said. “I became acutely aware that this war is alive and going strong, and these guys are paying the price.”



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